Roman Vishniac was a Russian born, American photographer, biologist and pioneer in the field of photomicroscopy. He is best known for his photographs of Jewish life in Central and Eastern European in the 1930s. His work as a photographer spanned six decades, from the early 1920s to the 1970s and includes photographs of Weimer Berlin, the rise of Nazi power in Germany, American Jewish life in the 1940s and 50s, Displaced Persons camps in Europe in 1947, and postwar ruins in Berlin. He was also well known during his lifetime for his significant scientific contributions to the fields of photomicroscopy and time-lapse photography. Vishniac had a lifelong interest in the fields of biology, zoology, art history and Jewish history. He first visited Israel in the 1960s. He won international acclaim for his photographs of Jewish life in cities, towns, and shetls, as well as his celebrity portraits, and images of microscopic biology.
Vishniac was born on August 19, 1897 in Pavlosk, near St. Petersburg, and grew up in Moscow. Few Jews were permitted to live inside the city of Moscow, but since Vishniac’s father, Solomon, was a wealthy umbrella manufacturer and his mother, Manya, was the daughter of affluent diamond dealers, the family was granted permission to reside and work within the city. Vishniac’s fascination with biology and photography began at an early age. When his grandmother gave him a camera and a microscope for his seventh birthday, Vishniac attached the camera to the microscope, magnifying the muscles in a cockroach’s leg magnified 3 times, which resulted in his first photograph and first experiment with photomicroscopy. He used this microscope extensively, viewing and photographing everything he could find, from dead insects to animal scales, to pollen and protozoa.
Beginning in 1914, Vishniac spent six years at Shanyavsky Institute (now University) in Moscow studying zoology and biology. There he worked with prestigious biologist Nikolai Koltzoff, experimenting with inducing metamorphosis in axolotl, a species of aquatic salamander.
In 1918, the Third Russian Revolution triggered a rise in anti-Semitism that caused Vishniac’s immediate family to relocate to Berlin. He followed soon after and married Luta (Leah) Bagg, a Latvian Jew. They had two children, Mara and Wolf, and Vishnaic became an accomplished amateur photographer and pursued scientific research and was a member of zoological, scientific and photography clubs and organizations, including the Jewish camera club T’munah.
Between ca. 1935 and 1938, as anti-Semitism was escalating in Germany, Vishniac traveled to Eastern Europe and took his acclaimed photographs of Jewish life in urban cities, towns, and small communities, including Jews living in remote mountain villages. Commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as part of a fundraising initiative to help alleviate poverty in Eastern European Jewish communities, Vishniac traveled through Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Lithuania photographing Jewish life. In late 1938, Vishniac photographed Zbaszyn, an internment camp in Poland near the German border, where Polish Jews who had been living in Germany were deported, on assignment for the JDC.
Vishniac took thousands of the photographs in Eastern Europe, smuggled into America through Cuba by his friend Walter Bierer. The photographs would later be showcased as part of one-man shows at the New School for Social Research, Teachers College at Columbia University, YIVO, the Jewish Museum, the International Center of Photography, and several other institutions.
While visiting Paris in 1940, Vishniac was arrested by the Pétain police for being a “stateless person,” and was interned at Camp du Ruchard, a deportation camp in France. He stayed there for one month until his wife was able to secure his release. His parents remained in Europe. Vishniac’s mother died from cancer in 1941 and his father spent the war in hiding in France.
Vishniac and his family arrived in New York City on New Year’s Eve, 1940. He spoke German, Russian, and French, but no English. He established a portrait studio in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and worked as a freelance photographer struggling to establish himself as a photographer in America. It was during this time that Vishniac took his celebrated portraits of Albert Einstein. In 1942 his work on Eastern European Jewry was exhibited at the New School for Social Research. In 1944 and 1945, Vishniac had major exhibitions of his work at YIVO. Vishniac hoped to promote awareness of the plight of Eastern European Jews, and wrote to President Roosevelt, enclosing his photographs, and to Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady, to request that she visit his exhibit. While the war continued, his work was also exhibited at Teachers College, Columbia University and was widely reproduced in Jewish and national press outlets.
In 1946, Vishniac became an American citizen. He and Luta divorced. In 1947, Vishniac returned to Europe on assignment to document Jewish refugees and displaced persons camps in Germany, France, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Vishniac also returned to his former hometown, Berlin, documenting the ruins of the city. While there, he reunited with Edith Ernst, his pre-war companion. They married before returning to New York and settling on the Upper West Side. In 1947, Vishniac’s photographs were included in Raphael Abramovitch’s A Vanished World, one of the first extensive pictorial documentations of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Ten years later, Vishniac was appointed to be research associate at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and in 1961 became a professor of biological education. He later became “Chevron Professor of Creativity” at Pratt Institute and lectured widely on topics ranging from eastern art and numismatics to ecology, zoology and Jewish history.
Vishniac was the project director and filmmaker for the Living Biology series sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which consisted of seven films focused on cell biology, organs and systems, embryology, evolution, genetics, ecology, botany, the animal world, and the microbial world. He was a pioneer in time-lapse cinematography and light-interruption photography and in the color photomicroscopy of living organisms. Vishniac’s main area of research was in marine microbiology, the physiology of ciliates, and circulation systems in unicellular plants. He hypothesized that the first living organisms were muticellular structures that emerged at many different times and places by varying biochemical pathways. In 1971, Building Blocks of Life was published, documenting Vishniac’s color microphotographs of proteins, vitamins, and hormones.
Vishniac received the Memorial Award of the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1956 and was the winner of the 1984 National Jewish Book Award in the visual arts catalogue for his seminal book, A Vanished World. His photograph, The Only Flowers of her Youth, was acknowledged as “most impressive” by the International Photographic Exhibition in 1952 and he received the Grand Prize of Art in Photography from the New York Coliseum. Vishniac also received Honorary Doctoral degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia College of Art, and the California College of Art. He died of colon cancer on January 22, 1990.
Vishniac’s life’s work was the subject of a major retrospective that opened at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2013 and traveled to Amsterdam, Paris, Warsaw, Houston and San Francisco. The Vishniac Archive, which contains more than 50,000 objects, including his entire body of negatives, ten thousand prints, personal correspondence, audio recordings and ephemera, is now housed at the International Center of Photography. His digitized negatives, spanning his full career, can be viewed online in a shared digital database between ICP and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (http://vishniac.icp.org/).